On her own terms

I t was in the year 1947. Rajeshwari was barely 25 years old. She boarded a converted troop ship SS Marine Adder on her way to San Francisco, via Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai for higher studies at US.

For a moment her heart sank, but only for a moment. She travelled this long distance all by herself, with a rare courage that sustained her all her life until her passing away on September 3, 2010. Rajeshwari's courage and mental ability were legendary. She possibly inherited these qualities from her grandmother Kamalamma who was widowed at the age of about 20 and her father moved the whole family from Mysore to Madras so that his daughter could pursue her education. Kamalamma passed her B.A. examination with credit and devoted the rest of her life to promote female education. Rajeshwari received her early education from the experimental school set up by her grandmother in Mahila Seva Samaj in Basavanagudi, Bangalore, 1928. Rajeshwari's brilliance helped her to sail through her B.Sc. (Hons) and M.Sc. in Mathematics from Maharani's College, Bangalore.

Rajeshwari went to Sir C.V. Raman at the Indian Institute of Science to work under him. Raman refused to take her stating that Rajeshwari had no degrees in Physics. Was it her lack of a degree in Physics or her gender that came in the way? Sadly, she is not around to answer this question. Anyway, Rajeshwari was not the kind of a person who would give up easily. She joined the Electrical Technology Department (ET) in the IISc to work as a research student in Communication Engineering and this is where she met Sisir Kumar Chatterjee, who later distinguished himself in his researches in millimeter waves or microwaves, first discovered by Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose in 1894. After two years of research in the ET Department, Rajeshwari decided to work for her Ph.D. in the US. With her determination to achieve what she set her mind on, she obtained government funds and scholarship to support her studies abroad. She joined the University of Michigan, took a break for undergoing practical training as per the agreement with the Government of India, returned to Michigan and completed her Ph.D. and in 1952 boarded the luxury liner S.S. Queen Mary to return home to India.

Rajeshwari came to be known as Mrs. Chatterjee after she got married to Sisir Kumar Chatterjee in 1953; they both had joined the Department of Communication Engineering in the Indian Institute of Science. But she never lost her identity. Almost sixty years ago, it was not easy for a woman in India to carry out research in Science.

Moreover, she was the only woman faculty member in the Indian Institute of Science; it was anything but smooth sailing. But Rajeshwari was not to be deterred. She started supervising research students and publishing research papers and had a large number of both to her credit. She published seven technical books of high quality and in three decades of her stay in the IISC had made a name for herself not only for her contributions to the study of microwaves, but also as a teacher who cared for her students. Mrs. Chatterjee always acknowledged the support she received from her husband in her pursuit of research.

It is heartening to see today a large number of young women engaged in research for Ph.D. in the IISc and other Institutions. There are also a number of women as faculty members who have earned National and International recognition as distinguished scientists.

It would not be wrong to say that it was Professor Chatterjee and a few other women of her time who have paved the way for women in India to surge ahead as scientists.

No account of Rajeshwari Chatterjee would be complete without a reference to her personality as a kind and concerned human being. She was always concerned about people she knew or even people she knew of, if they were in trouble. With a phenomenal memory she could keep track of all of them, make telephone calls to find out how they were and extended her help if she could. For her students she was as much a teacher as she was a mother.

When a large number of people who loved her including her younger brother Professor Chandrasekhar, a famous physicist, her daughter Indira, also an eminent scientist who has made a name for her researches in microwaves, assembled in the Malleswaram Penthouse where Professor Chatterjee lived alone, the name of the grandmother Kamalamma, the widow who inspired Rajeshwari, Chandrasekhar and a few others in the family to pursue science, was mentioned several times. One remembered the old adage, “Educate a woman and you educate a family.”

On the day Prof. Chatterjee passed away, a number of those assembled were tearful. There were others who were not since they believed Prof. Chatterjee had lived her life in her own terms, as a unique example of a woman who excelled as a scientist and was a caring wife, mother, teacher and a friend. When others would not even dare stir out of their bed, frail and weak as she was, she undertook her long and last journey to the US and back with the same courage and determination that had kept her company on her first trip to the States 63 years ago, never to desert her for the rest of her life.

(The author is a retired professor of the Indian Institute of Science and currently a visiting professor at the NIAS. He acknowledges the help of Ms. Rajeshwari Chattopadhyay for providing information.)